Gulf War Syndrome: 100,000 U.S.casualties
It seemed to be over so quickly. Almost as rapidly as the Gulf War came to our awareness, it was over. Those of us who were part of the anti-war coalition that formed as 1990 drew to a close tried to point out the geopolitical gamesmanship that was unfolding before us, a war "for cheap oil."
The Gulf War was not only a war crime, with 100,000 Iraqis estimated to have perished during the conflict, it was also a toxic battlefield. The U.S. apparently destroyed bunkers of chemical weapons which were dispersed by the wind across U.S. and European troops. Depleted uranium shells were used in anti-tank missiles, leaving contamination for generations. Gigantic oil fires burned for weeks, putting toxic hydrocarbon smoke into the atmosphere and into the lungs of all breathing beings in the war zone area.
But it was billed as a war with few casualties on the U.S. side and that, at least, seemed to be one unarguable thing the media was telling us.
The reports started a year or so after the war of veterans suffering a strange ambiguous malady which left them fatigued, with rashes, aching joints, and gastro-intestinal disorders. In Gainesville, Gulf War vet Michael C. Adcock died of a terrible, fast-moving cancer in April, 1992, less than a year after returning from the war. He had complained of the sudden onset of symptoms before he left the Gulf. He was 22 years old. (See Iguana, Oct. 1993). By 1993, 2,000 deaths were blamed on the syndrome.
Radio, newspapers, and TV all took their time reporting it, but they eventually revealed tragic stories of soldiers, reservists or national guards suddenly unable to work and often abandoned by the Veterans Administration because of the separation between time of service and time of illness. Finally, after years of reports and a lot of angry protests by the victims, the VA opened a registry in 1993 for Gulf War veterans with these symptoms, and by September 1993 80,000 had made claims. Now that figure is over 100,000. This illness affects 10-15% of the U.S. troops involved in the Gulf, but what is it?
Two speakers shed some light on the situation on February 25th at the Civic Media Center. Jim Moss is a researcher on insecticides who is formerly an employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Colonel Bruce Pettyjohn is a physician in the Tampa area who conducted physical examinations on troops going to the Gulf, and then examined them a year after their return. He found that 10-20% "were different people". People who had been regularly employed, who passed the mandatory fitness tests before they went to the Gulf, were shadows of themselves. Troops across the U.S., especially reservists and guardsmen--largely because that is who formed the bulk of the troops in the Gulf--all with similar maladies. And beyond the U.S., troops from Canada and Great Britain have similar symptoms and disabilities.
The answer, Moss and Pettyjohn agreed, seems to be a precautionary experimental drug given to U.S., Canadian and British troops to supposedly provide them with some resistance to chemical weapons. The ironies here are two-fold. One, the U.S., while using Saddam Hussein and Iraq's military as an ally against Iran and Islamic fundamentalism in the '80's, had played a tacit role in Iraq's chemical weapons program. When the Gulf War came, it was fear of the weapons which led the American and European command (except the French) to administer these untested drugs. Tragically, the result has apparently turned out to be the opposite for many individuals who took the pills.
Moss was doing research in Gainesville for the USDA in 1993, trying to develop a more potent insecticide by examining how they work and what could increase their potency. As he researched organophosphates, news of Gulf War Syndrome started circulating, and Moss realized that there might be a connection to his own work, where he found that stress, resulting in adrenaline, served to increase toxicity of the insecticides he was studying. Moss said he thought that the stress the troops were exposed to could have interacted with the chemicals--including the insecticides--an idea already circulating as people looked for an answer about Gulf War syndrome. Moss mentioned his ideas to his superiors at the USDA and was shocked by their response--they threatened to fire him if he talked to anyone else about it.
Moss was sure he was onto something, so he persisted. "What I did was insist on written instructions to stop doing research. They never came so ... from Nov. '93 to June '94 when my term expired I ... shifted my attention toward the Gulf War chemicals since I was going to be out of work anyway. In late '93 I found out talking with some members of the Defense Department that there was a pill that had been given to the troops. It was carbonic which also has actions similar to the nerve gasses and I got curious about that."
Moss' research has showed him that the chemical in the pill was quite likely affected and amplified by insecticides which were in wide use by the troops, another way the pills might be elevated to toxic levels. Moss tried to communicate this to the Defense Department, the VA, or the USDA, and was rebuffed at every turn. They were "either hostile or disinterested in finding out about this stuff; they didn't want to talk." Not only that, USDA staffers wrote a defamatory letter about Moss and his ideas, which higher-ups then recited to the press and other officials.
Knowing he was on the verge of being shut out, Moss took the opportunity to contact Senator Jay Rockefeller who, along with Don Reigel, was beginning Senate inquiries into Gulf War Syndrome. Moss knew the leap from research on cockroaches to mammals was big, but he testified, which caused a major flap. It kept the USDA from burying his research.
The now unemployed Moss said other research is now backing up is work. Duke University researchers got positive results from chickens, the Army has used rats, and a researcher in Mississippi, who brought Moss on as a consultant, replicated the results with mice. The results of their collaboration have been released as an abstract for a Society of Toxicology meeting coming up in March. New findings include the observation that caffeine may also interact with the pills given by the military, also raising their near-toxic levels into the danger zone.
Responding to government and corporate attempts to silence him about his research, Moss acknowledged that Johnson & Johnson had done a pretty slick move by having USDA terminate his research with a phone call, but said the fact that so many people are sick is what made his findings news. "The agency (USDA) is unusually successful at this kind of thing. It just happens that there are 100,000-odd people sick. It didn't get press because of me, I got press because of Gulf War Syndrome. It was an institutional reflex that happened to me, and I could easily believe it could happen a lot."
Col. Pettyjohn has nineteen years service in the National Guard, and started his military career after he became a physician. Of the 300 people he examined physically, 60 came back "completely different." They could not perform physical tests which they had breezed through before. Many in this group had been part of a work detail repainting vehicles with CARC paint--Chemical Agent Retardant Coating--which if applied to OSHA standards would have painters virtually wearing scuba gear, with outside air sources and completely covered. In the wartime sensibility prevailing in the Gulf, the soldiers painted hundreds of vehicles using only particle masks. As obvious as this problem seemed, Pettyjohn encountered resistance from higher-ups, though now these CARC cases are receiving care from the VA.
Pettyjohn said, "Some people had something which I couldn't exactly attribute to CARC paint. As an industrial physician, I know to look at the environment--what people were exposed to. I made a lot of lists, I wanted to see why these things were happening. I was really happy to find out a couple of months back that Dr. Moss was one of those people doing original, basic research which showed the interaction or synergism that takes place between different types of organophosphate chemicals." Referring to the pills used to inoculate against chemical attacks, Pettyjohn said, " For example, Pyridostigmine [Bromide] that was used, everybody [that I examined] used it, though not everybody used it in the same way in the 60 troops I listened to. Some took 3 a day, some took 2 a day... Pyridostigmine was never intended to be used in war for protection against nerve agents. It was introduced back in 1990 at the beginning of the war, and it was an experimental drug."
Additionally, Rita Hawkins, a Gulf War vet who is now sick, pointed out that there seemed to be no concern about a person's body size when dosages were provided. Pettyjohn agreed with this, stating that in his interviews, the dosages were not tailored to different sized people. Moss pointed out that his research also indicates that men and women may be affected differently because of different hormonal interaction with the chemicals.
At the Civic Media Center program, three of the six Gulf War veterans present spoke of serious health problems now. And Pettyjohn's investigations match the international situation, with the same symptomatic complaints showing up in U.S. and British Gulf War vets. Complaints are ranked in order of frequency: Fatigue, gastro-intestinal disorders, sleep disturbance, memory loss, hair loss and rashes. Canadians have the same symptoms but memory loss was more frequently cited. The French troops, who did not take the anti nerve gas pills, do not show these problems. Moss mentioned that a CBS news reporter who took the pills now also is affected with Gulf War Syndrome.
Veterans present at the program mentioned difficulty getting health care services at the VA. The problem is rampant, according to Pettyjohn. Since 75% of Gulf troops were reservists and national guards, proving that their illness was a result of their service is an extra hurdle for these veterans. In the Gulf War, "A high percentage of military was made up of National Guard and reserves, but it's hard for them to prove that their illness was caused by [military service] when it shows up a year after they got out."
Pettyjohn said that the Dalbert decision, which is the current standard, requires illness or injury to have a "provable probably pathway of causation" that can withstand scrutiny. Pettyjohn said "The law needs to be changed for the reserves and the National Guard. Once they're out they're out ... this is wrong. They served their country, the did what they had to do and they came back, and just because it's a delayed illness does not mean they have to prove it now."
For all veterans, Pettyjohn said, "The erosion of military benefits is unbelievable. Not just for [Gulf War veterans] but for everyone who's retired, you kind of look forward to things and it's not there anymore."
Gainesville Veterans for Peace has made available a self-help guide for Gulf War veterans which is largely compiled from internet sources. Copies are available from them at P.O. Box 142562, Gainesville, FL 32614. A contribution for printing and postage is requested. The Civic Media Center, 1021 W. University Ave., also has a copy.
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